As the 2016-2017 school year draws to a close, and our nation is about to celebrate her 150th birthday, it’s an interesting time to look at how our educational system has changed over those years. For ease of reading, we have broken the timeline into the first 75 years of Canada’s educational system and the second 75 years.

During the 19th century, the focus of education turned away from the home and towards a classroom setting. By the mid 19th century Canada was putting together the pieces of a modern school system, establishing the roles of funding, control, and participation. School systems across Canada began to develop very similarly due to school promoters reading each other’s work and working together.

Education of the Native North American peoples was conducted separately from that of the settlers and immigrants. Residential schools were established with little oversight and managed by various religious groups. The intent was for the First Nations people to assimilate to the customs and culture of the newly forming country. This was a terrible injustice to the First Nations people and amounted to cultural genocide. While attempts at reparation have been made, this is a piece of our common history which should not be forgotten.

Early Canadian curriculum consisted of lessons in Mathematics, reading, and writing, and later geography and history were added. Education also included religious instruction and focussed on social skills. The main focus of early school systems was not academic but focussed on solving problems like crime, poverty, and homelessness.

1867 – Canada became a country, there were 723,000 students enrolled in schools, but the average daily attendance was only 40.7%.
– With much controversy over the language and religion of schooling, the Constitution Act of 1867 put educational standards in the hands of each province and territory. Any separate school systems that existed in provinces at the time they joined the Confederation were deemed legitimate.
– There was strong opposition to teachers and curriculum from the US, so Ontario imported materials from Ireland, with a focus on teaching both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Irish immigrants were also the majority of the population of Ontario at this point in time.
1868 – Quebec created its first Ministry of Public Instruction.
1869 – With the Common School Ordinance of 1869, British Columbia introduced public education to the province.
1870’s – Composition is added to the Canadian curriculums.
1870 – Manitoba was obligated to provide education in French by the Manitoba Act of 1870.
1871 – Compulsory free schooling was first instituted in Ontario, it was the first province to do so. Free public schooling was provided in both English and French. Private schools existed where schools charged for admission, but public schools were paid for by the government and through taxes.
– Schooling was usually completed by the age of 14, and Canada instituted some of the longest summer breaks globally to account for children being able to work on family farms.
1874 – The agricultural college opened in Guelph Ontario, this was not the first college, but the first to open since Canada became a country.
– The telephone was invented.
1875 – Quebec’s Ministry of Public Instruction is shut down under pressure from the Catholic Church.
1877 – The University of Manitoba was founded and began accepting students. This was not the first university in Canada, but the first to be founded since Canada became a country.
1880’s – Fine arts like music, literature, and drawing were introduced to Canadian classroom curriculums.
1885 – There were 911,000 students enrolled in schools and the average daily attendance was just over half at 53.3%.
1890’s – By this point, Children were expected to attend free compulsory education throughout most of Canada.
– Although still taught in one room school houses, children were taught at different grade or “book” levels, the standard eight levels of education became the norm.
– Physical education and health, manual training, nature and agricultural study, and household science are introduced to Canadian curriculums.
– Electricity was introduced to classrooms.
1890 – With a larger Anglophone population to Francophone, the Manitoba Schools Act was passed, cutting off funding for separate (French Catholic) schools.
– The first Kindergarten education is introduced.
1895 – 1,011,000 students were enrolled in schools and the average daily attendance was 59.8%.
1897 – “The strap” which was used to strike students on the palms of their hands as a form or corporal punishment was standardized. It was 15 inches long, 1.5 inches wide and made of rubber.
1900 – At the turn of the century, there were 1,055,000 students enrolled in schools and the average daily attendance had jumped to 61.2%
1908 – The first high school for girls, the Collège Marguerite-Bourgeoys, was opened in Montreal.
1910 – Half day special education classes were offered in Toronto (among the first of their kind in Canada) for students with disabilities and learning differences.
1912 – In Ontario, Circular No. 17 made English the official language of education and banned the use of French in schools past the first grade.
1913 – Circular No. 17 was rewritten to allow for 1 hour of French teaching per day.
1914 – World War 1 begins
– Over 80% of children between the ages of 5 and 14 attended public schools
– War related educational materials were developed for students in both elementary and high schools. Teachers in Quebec did not generally incorporate the war into their lesson plans.
1917 – The Khaki University (originally the Khaki College) was set up by Canadian forces in Britain, under the leadership of Dr Henry Marshall Tory. Standardized textbooks were approved by all the Canadian provinces and the program worked not only to expand education but to improve the morale of the troops. It served as the prototype for other systems in other countries.
1918 – The end of World War I.
1919 – In Ontario the Adolescent School Attendance Act was passed, requiring children between the ages of 14 and 16 to attend a legally recognized school. Students who were exempt for health or employment reasons had to attend part time schooling.
– The Canadian government passed the Technical Education Act, encouraging and funding the education of students in industrial and mechanical trades.
1920’s – Compulsory schooling instituted in Quebec.
1925 – Just under 2 million (1,993,000) students were enrolled across the country, and average daily attendance was the highest it had been at 77.3%.
1929 – The Great Depression began.
The 1930s – Teaching jobs were hard to find as more teachers were trained than there were jobs to fill.
– In rural areas of the prairies, teachers taught grades 1-8 or even 1-11 in one room schoolhouses, many without running water. The teachers also often boarded with farmers, in a teacherage or in the schoolhouse.
1931 – Between 1931 and 1934, the province of Alberta dropped funding for schools by almost a million dollars.
1935 – In the later half of the 30’s the focus of education began to shift away from memorizing and drilling, and towards actively doing and exploring the interests of the children.
1936 – Alberta’s School Act was amended to create rural school divisions, this allowed more educational opportunities for children and allowed more students the opportunity to attend high school.
1939 – The beginning of World War II.
– Reduced funding for education led to the reduction of materials, the cutting of courses, and postponement of building new schools.
– There was a shortage of teachers due to the manpower crisis caused by the war.
– Tech and vocational classes focussed on fulfilling war production needs.
– Children of German and Japanese descent were often ridiculed and bullied by their peers and seen as foreigners even if they were born in Canada.
– Schools participated in blackout drills to prepare for the threat of bombing, which thankfully never came.
1940 – “Guest children” were evacuated from Britain and came to Canada, they lived with foster families and attended Canadian schools. Over 7000 “guest children” came to Canada during the war. Most returned to Britain and their families before the end of the war.
1941 – After Canada went to war with Japan, children of Japanese descent were pulled out of their schools and they were sent with their families to internment camps as they were seen to be a threat to Canadian security.

Half way through the history of Canada as a country was a dark time, not only for Canada but for the world. The glamor of war was lost as this war was televised. No side came out without blood on their hands.
Canada as a nation stumbled and fell a few times in the first half of its young life. There were decisions made that none of its descendants are proud of. Amid all of that, there was a movement, slow as it may be, towards a more modern and inclusive educational system. Although the system is still not perfect and Canada as a nation is still struggling to find it’s true identity, we hope you will come back and read the second half of this timeline and see how far we have come.